Habbaniya, Britain’s jewel in the Iraqi desert

Habbaniya was an oasis of ethnic and religious harmony.
Tuesday 30/01/2018
An Iraqi MIG jet fighter stands behind coils of barbed wire on the Habbaniya airfield. (AFP)
Open-air museum. An Iraqi MIG jet fighter stands behind coils of barbed wire on the Habbaniya airfield. (AFP)

LONDON - Dubbed the second London in the Iraqi desert, with an entrance gate called London Gate, the Royal Air Force (RAF) Station in Habbaniya, about 90km west of Baghdad, was once the British empire’s most important military base in Iraq. The vast base included the headquarters of RAF Iraq command, a hospital, barracks and fuel and bomb stations. It was a symbol of British power in the Middle East.

Construction on the base began in 1934 and one of the first things that was done was the planting of hundreds of eucalyptus trees, imported from Australia. Eucalyptus trees possess a sap that acts as a natural mosquito repellent. Because of the trees, Habbaniya never had a problem with malaria — the building of the base was the beginning of a town-sized oasis carved out of nothing in the middle of the desert.

The base became a favourite posting for the RAF. The peace and tranquillity of the desert made for a rewarding experience for many service personnel. Roald Dahl was stationed there in 1940, as he described in his book “Going Solo,” but had an unfavourable experience compared with that of many other personnel based there. Ammo Baba, the most revered figure in Iraqi football, both as a player and later as coach of the national team, started his footballing career in Habbaniya.

The average population of Habbaniya was about 15,000 people. It was a place where Christians, Muslims, Arabs and Kurds lived together without friction.

Andrius Warda, one of the earliest residents of Habbanyia, recalled: “The narrow cobbled streets of Habbanyia were a mishmash of sun-dried brick buildings almost suffocating each other with their embrace, the pleasant scent of flowers lingered in the air. My great enjoyment was going to the cinema with my friends and watching those cowboy movies. We often spent time around Lake Habbaniya for some water sports activities.”

Mariam Hassan, who lived on the airbase, said: “It was customary for people to exchange social visits.” A whiff of a memory came and she added: “Neighbours would visit neighbours, relatives would visit relations and sometimes even strangers would drop in to chat, smoke a cigarette, munch an apple or orange. Habbaniya was a beacon of hope and freedom.”

In the spring of 1940 the waters of the Euphrates threatened to overflow the station and the families were moved to nearby hills. The danger passed without flooding and, after three weeks, people returned to their homes.

Encouraged by hints of German assistance and swift German triumphs in Greece and Crete, Iraqi Prime Minister Rashid Ali al-Gaylani revolted against the British monarch and government and besieged the air base of Habbaniya in May 1941. British forces from the airfield launched air and ground attacks on Iraqi forces and forced them to retreat.

Youarish Darmoo, an Assyrian Iraqi officer in Habbaniya, recalled in his memoirs: “The base should have fallen according to good military logic, due to Iraqi superiority: The Iraqi army numbered some 50,000 soldiers. They could have occupied the base by sheer strength of their numbers but they were afraid to make a ground assault.”

During the second world war, Habbaniya became an important stage on the southern air route between the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union. The British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) ran a regular passenger service via North Africa and the Middle East. During the Cold War, numerous spy flights over Russia left from the base and it hosted many aircraft from various allied counties peeking into the Soviet Union.

On April 4, 1955, an agreement was signed between Iraq and Britain that called for the withdrawal of British forces from Iraq. As part of a grand ceremony, the transfer of control of the air base to the Iraqis took place on May 2, 1955.

“The handover of the base was a grandeur ceremony, most members of the Iraqi royal family were present along with King Faisal, the British ambassador and Air Vice-Marshal [Hugh Hamilton] Brookes,” Warda said.

The Iraqis used Habbaniya as an air training station and aircraft parts depot. It was a weapons development centre and a chemical training base for Republican Guard units.

The air base was attacked and bombed during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and again in 1999 but the original British buildings were untouched. The old air base buildings, whose walls were riddled with the effect of heat, stood defiantly like faithful sentinels in the sky.